The Duffer Brothers’s Stranger Things, which premiered on Netflix on July 15, 2016, rigidly follows formulas set by writers and directors of the 80s. In fact, it could be argued that Stranger Things is simply a prolonged homage to the works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Entire subplots and characters are ripped straight from The Goonies, E.T., Poltergeist, Stand By Me, IT, and many more of Spielberg’s and King’s classic works.
This new style of storytelling is not entirely uncommon nowadays. One could dissect Noah Hawley’s Fargo and find a straight line between the works of the Coen Brothers and his own creation (Molly Solverson is Marge Gunderson from Fargo, Lorne Malvo is Anton from No Country for Old Men, etc.). But there is one gigantic difference between these two works that I feel is worth addressing: while Fargo used elements of plot, character, and style to tell a unique and utterly new story, Stranger Things ripped from the works of Spielberg and King wholesale, warts and all.
Don’t get me wrong—Stranger Things at its best is incredibly original and effective at seamlessly blending different genres to tell one cohesive story. Unfortunately, this only works some of the time. The subplot I believe suffers the worst for this obsession with outdated tropes is Nancy Wheeler. Each character she encounters fits into such an obvious archetype that it made me wonder why the show even bothered showing certain events play out. For example, Nancy goes out with a guy whose hair is so unreasonably quaffed and dress is so unbelievably preppy that it immediately reminded me of the main bad guy from Wet Hot American Summer with the three popped collars. Alarm bells went off as soon as he came onto screen that he was going to be “The Douche” who screws Nancy over in the end. Then there’s Jonathon Byers, older brother of Will Byers (the kid who went missing) who’s meant to be a sort of misanthrope with social issues and fit into what I assumed would be the role of “The Nice Guy Nancy Never Realized Was There All Along.”
This is all fine given the right context; I don’t mind familiar tropes and archetypes as long as they’re used in an original way, because otherwise what’s the point of telling that particular story in the first place? And for a while that’s what I assumed was happening: “The Douche” character, despite all appearances, actually seemed to be an ok guy. Sure, he was a little persistent about getting Nancy to have sex with him, but he never forced himself on her or made her do anything she wasn’t comfortable with. Plus, he constantly defended her to his friends (whose dickishness towards Nancy and Jonathon defied all logic) and did make a genuine effort to include her friend, Barb, in their plans. And Jonathon, who initially seemed only innocently introverted, ended up taking pictures of Nancy getting undressed. That’s when I made my predictions for how Jonathon’s character would play out: instead of simply being “misunderstood,” Nancy would discover that Jonathon would turn out to be an obsessive psychopath—a move I wholeheartedly accepted as a jab at the “Shy Nice Guy Gets the Girl” convention. I took all of this in and was ready to applaud the Duffer Brothers for their interesting take on such tired clichés.
Then I continued watching, and all that goodwill melted away. After discovering the pictures of Nancy Jonathon took, The Douche (whose hair was so distracting to me that his name couldn’t escape its vortex-like pull) tore them up in the most ridiculously over-the-top way that I had to pause the episode and wrap my head around what I had just witnessed. It became unsettlingly clear the showrunners wanted me to root for the guy who was taking pictures of a naked girl without her consent, and against the guy who had up to that point not done anything wrong. And then Nancy ends up siding with Jonathon anyway!
The Duffer Brothers suffer the problem of wanting to have their cake and eat it, setting up potentially interesting subversions of classic tropes and then mishandling them so hard an entire subplot might as well have dissolved into the ether for all the impact it had. I didn’t even mind where Jonathon as a character ended up (his monologue about using photography to connect was especially touching) and Steve’s character does go through a sort of mini-redemptive arc, but it all seemed so disingenuous considering how inconsistent the characters were portrayed.
I’m tired of rooting for the people I know I’m going to root for and hating the ones I know I won’t like, but I’m especially annoyed at writers trying to force me into liking someone they’ve already established as being distasteful just to serve the plot. The problem with Stranger Things isn’t one of substance or quality but of consistency and tone; while some plots and moments shone through (the “Run” scene in particular stands out), as a whole, it remains a carbon copy of stories and characters that were overdone three decades ago and haven’t improved with age.
While the end gives me the impression that the Duffer Brothers want to go in the direction I’d originally predicted for the second season, it still feels very forced and manipulative—you can’t keep taking the genie in and out of the bottle when it’s convenient. In the end, I gained and learned nothing from watching this particular part of Stranger Things except, perhaps, another guide on how not to do a high school mystery plot.